Some months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, I found myselfin Kuwait sharing a taxi from the airport to my hotel withan Iraqi journalist who had just come from Baghdad to attendthe same conference. We talked about the situation in Iraq,the violence and how it should be dealt with.
One of the first questions I put to my Iraqi colleague waswhat he thought should be done to bring stability to Iraq.Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “Iraqis need a‘Saddam-lite,’ a benevolent dictator. Someone not as bad andpowerful as Saddam, but someone who can frighten the peopleinto accepting discipline.”
It was a strange but nonetheless realistic point of viewthat chaos in Iraq could only be contained by installing aleader who could rule with an iron fist, while working tobring democracy to the country—an Arab Atatürk if you will.(Mustafa Kemal, better known as Atatürk or “father of theTurks,” emerged as a military hero in the Dardanelles in1915. He led the founding of the modern Turkish republic in1923, after the collapse of the 600-year rule of the Ottoman Empire. After a three-year war ofindependence, Atatürk led Turkey into the 20th century andmodernization, and did so with a firm rule.)
Indeed, at a time when President George W. Bush had highhopes that Iraq would be the new shining light from whichdemocracy would spread throughout the Arab world, similarthoughts were being put forward by moderate Arab countries.One was King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Abdullah saw that a possible solution out of the Iraqiquagmire would be to install a strong military leader. Sucha leader, said the king, could instill law and order in thechaos that is Iraq today.
“I would say that the profile would be somebody from inside,somebody who’s very strong, has some sort of popularfeeling,” said the Hashemite monarch in the InternationalHerald Tribune, on his return from Washington where he metwith President Bush. “I would probably imagine—again this isoff the top of my head—someone with a military background who has the experience ofbeing a tough guy who could hold Iraq together for the nextyear.”
Today, four years on, Iraq is experiencing an unprecedentedcrime wave. Aside from the politically-related violence, which is claiming hundreds of lives on adaily basis, the country is being hit by organized and pettycrime and the contrast between Saddam Hussein’s 30-year rule as an absolute dictator who cracked down hard oncrime, and the sudden void of authority felt in the countryafter the dissolution of the army and the Baath Party couldnot have been greater.
I remember asking my traveling partner what he expectedwould happen when the US-led coalition handed over partialsovereignty to an Iraqi government. “I fear there will becivil war,” he replied. “Perhaps not immediately, butcertainly in due course.”
He was equally skeptical about democracy. “Forgetelections,” he said.
“They are simply not ready for it,” he said, and then,echoing King Abdullah’s sentiments, he went on, “Give them astrong army man who can pull it together. Someone who canrule with an iron fist and bring back law and order. Someonenot as bad as Saddam, but who has experience in themilitary, and in getting respect. That’s what we need.”
But there are two problems in putting such an idea intopractice. First, it would be in-your-face evidence that theBush Doctrine of freedom for the Middle East, with Iraq as ashowpiece, was a failure—something this White House wouldsavagely oppose. And second, the mechanism needed to realizesuch a venture—mainly a strong military—is no longer present in today’s Iraq. Alas, this means Iraqmay be destined to live through more years of instabilityuntil a strong figure can emerge to lead the country out ofthe darkness.
It wasn’t exactly what President Bush had in mind,especially as it would mean accepting that the democracyexperiment in Iraq has failed, at least for the moment, butamid the mounting chaos that is gripping Iraq today, theidea of a benevolent dictator—an Iraqi Atatürk—is beingtouted as a genuine option, one that was even debated—“Thishouse believes only a new dictator can end the violence inIraq”—recently on the BBC’s Doha debate.
Identifying an Iraqi “Atatürk” might not be all thatsimple—just think of the ethno-religious hurdles: a Sunniwould be rejected by Shi’ites and vice versa. For sadly,Saddam’s over-inflated megalomaniac ego did not leave roomfor any Iraqi heroes—at least not any whose hands are notstained with Iraqi blood.